by Matt Ballard, CFSA intern

Millarckee Farm lies nestled in the lower hills and bottomland surrounding Cane Creek in southern Alamance County. The two cultivated acres show the untiring work of farmer Daniel Tolfree, who founded the farm thirty years ago. Upon visiting the farm, one quickly notices the quaint historic farmhouse beside a towering, century-old black walnut tree stretching out its burly limbs. The log-constructed barn across the way shelters his three goats. Here, Tolfree greeted me with wheel barrow in hand, heaping over with straw, in the middle of a sunny, winter day.

Learning to Mimic Nature

A teenager during the late 1960s, against the backdrop of clarion calls of ecological crises, Tolfree began to see the value of acquiring basic skills that make his own life possible. “My father owned a tire retail store, and I thought, ‘You can’t eat tires.’” So, for Tolfree, the next step included learning how to farm.

In the early 1970s, he enrolled in a baccalaureate program studying organic agriculture at Evergreen College. This being the developmental stage of organic as an agricultural philosophy, there was a lot of room for exploration about what works. Tolfree remarks, “It showed me how to question what’s going on within natural systems in order to mimic or work with them.”

One can easily see how Tolfree’s farming practices evolved with his own ingenuity and attention toward the dictates of the land. On a stroll down toward the lower field, it was clear that Tolfree has an intimate knowledge of the land he farms. “It’s remarkable how different the soil characteristics are on both of my fields despite being only several yards away,” he comments. Unlike the clay loam of the upper field adjacent to the farmhouse, the lower field has more of a silty loam quality. Not knowing how long the field has been cleared, he attributes seasonal flooding in years past to the difference in soil composition.

The moated field is surrounded on all sides by the large creek bed, freshly replenished by sopping December rain showers. According to Tolfree, the field has only flooded once in the past fifteen years, in contrast with almost yearly flooding before. Relying upon the Cane Creek for pump irrigation, he’s noticed increasingly shrinking water levels caused by repeated droughts over several years.

“Soil is Most Important”

Tolfree is a self-declared minimalist when it comes to agricultural inputs, although one has to remember that he’s been diligently nurturing the same soil for three decades. After several weeks, Tolfree mows the cover crop, typically winter rye or oats and sometimes clover or hairy vetch, to stimulate further growth for a greater amount of biomass. In letting the crop grow too high, he notes, the mowed biomass would be too lignified to break down as easily for tilling in, as well as changing the carbon-nitrogen ratio for more efficient composting. Once he’s ready to plant a cash crop, Tolfree then adds only two cups of lime, some chicken or goat manure and a bio-activator such as kelp meal into the bed, and then rototills the amendments with his cover crop. Basically, Tolfree composts all the biomass within his beds throughout the year. “No matter what, adding organic matter to the soil is the most important lesson for the farmer,” he asserts. Later at the upper field, he digs his hand into the friable soil up to his wrist, cradling it in his palm and then rolling it between his fingers to display an incredible tilth uncharacteristic of clay soils.

Millarckee’s rotational system focuses mainly upon four, sometimes five, plant families in one year. After his cover crop, Tolfree direct seeds a multitude of peas into the bed, eventually harvesting the delicate tendrils at least once if not twice. The legume also fixes nitrogen for following crops. His second cash crop in the rotation is a variety of mustard greens and other lesser-known cruciferous leaf vegetables, such as tatsoi or mizuna. Next in the rotation are seasonal herbs such as cilantro or basil. Then he plants additional crops like summer squash or tomatoes. Tolfree tends toward crop varieties that can be easily grown without transplanting, preferring to direct seed his crops, mindful of the infrastructure and labor required otherwise.

Tolfree also pays attention to the various nooks-and-crannies of the landscape to grow additional food. In especially shady and moist conditions, oyster mushrooms proliferate on a downed tree along the edge of the field and watercress populates a streambed originating from a natural spring right below the farmhouse.

After the current beds have been through three years of crop rotations,  Tolfree breaks the ground of the pathways, alternating back-and-forth every three years. “Permanent” beds become pathways, and vice versa. Tolfree enumerates the many benefits of the bed and path system: reduced leaching of nutrients, better water-holding capacity, addition of biodiversity by pathway weeds, mulching as the paths are trimmed, and temperature moderation. Especially during heavy rains, he doesn’t need to worry as much about soil erosion. He remarked that on many occasions, a heavy downpour will merely transfer topsoil onto his pathways rather than downslope. And he doesn’t worry about compaction as much because he only uses a walking tractor.

Less is More

In general, Tolfree tends not to use spun polypropylene fabric row covers for season extension. He mentions the increase of transmitting pest problems from the fall into the early spring, something he’s certainly noticed in recent years. Also, he does not use any plastic drip-tape, preferring to use overhead irrigation to mimic rainfall after noticing that he sees better growth in his crops. Tolfree does not use any pesticides, herbicides or synthetic fertilizers, stressing that his high-quality vegetables are the result of a healthy soil and farm ecosystem. This is what his reliable customers at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market have come to expect for thirty years, seeing the children of his customers a generation ago become supportive patrons now.

Reflecting back on his thirty years of sustainable farming, Tolfree remarks on how he’s seen agriculture in the area change over the past few decades, sometimes for the worse and sometimes for the better. Many of his neighbors who grow commodity crops have been slowly turning over their larger acreage to distant biofuel conglomerates or spraying sewage sludge on their fields. But he also offers encouragement for beginning farmers and ranchers, seeing an unsaturated market demand for sustainably and locally produced food. And he sees potential collaborations among producers within the region, an imperative to ensure a viable food infrastructure. Anything less, you might say, is pure malarkey.

Matthew Ballard earned two Master’s degrees at the UNC School of Social Work and Duke Divinity School.